The Uniqueness of the Holocaust

For some theologians, the evils of the Holocaust were unique; others believe they can be integrated into traditional theological discourse.

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The existence of evil and suffering has challenged religious thinkers for millennia. But is all evil and suffering equal? Since World War II, theologians have grappled with whether the theological problems raised by the Holocaust can be conflated into the general problem of evil and suffering, or whether the Holocaust poses unique challenges.  Reprinted with the permission of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs from Wrestling Until Day-Break.

The ancient problem of theodicy [justifying the existence of evil] was one of the first philosophical problems related to the Holocaust which Jewish religious think­ers felt obliged to confront even during the evolving events. 

Needing An Impossible Faith

In spite of a strong emotional difficulty to apply "cold," detached philo­sophical methods to such an intimate painful problem during the terrible trial and in its aftermath, it was too urgent to be avoided. Believers needed so desperately the support and consolation of faith, seemingly the only possible source of support and consolation against such events which, however, refuted so radically the deepest existential foundations of faith. One had at least to protest or pray his question, as a final act of faith, expecting an answer from the depth of his soul, if not in a methodical‑philosophical manner, at least in a prophetic intuition.

uniqueness of the holocaustIndeed, the emotional facticity which served as a necessary empirical foundation even for later philosophical reflections on this ultimate question, made itself manifest in a paradoxical tension between two "measurable" anthropological phenomena-‑in the majority of studied individual cases of survivors (Brenner, 1980) the Holocaust did not affect extreme changes of basic attitudes towards faith in God, both on the part of believers and of nonbelievers. Namely, the majority of those who were believers before the Holocaust remained so after the Holocaust, and the same is true of nonbelievers.

Even those few whose belief was shocked and destroyed during the Holocaust, generally recovered their former position after the end of the war, while both believers and nonbelievers became only more radical in their stances after the events. On the other hand, believers, not less than nonbelievers, admitted in their immediate responses to the events (especially in diaries, prayers and homilies) their feeling that they cannot find any adequate religious justification.

Rejecting Traditional Justifications of Evil

The belief in Divine providence had acquired such dimensions of absurdity in the darkness of the Holocaust that not even one of the old known arguments of justification could hold its claim. Or let us put it in another more accurate way-‑in the immediate response of believers to the attacks of Radical Evil in the Holocaust one intuits an emotional rejection of most traditional arguments of justification. They refuse to accept them as if there is in such arguments, dwarfed to sheer superficiality by the extraordinarily unique reality, an unsufferable insult, or a desecration of their belief in a God of mercy and justice, making their spiritual agony even more painful.

This means that even for those who remained true to their belief and faith, the gap between religious expectation and reality remained unbridged, and their protested question remained unanswered, indeed as an inner deep dimension of their tortured faith. They believed in spite of and from within their conviction that there can be no satisfying answer in this world to their shocked religiosity.

Unjustified Faith

The first published responses of religious writers, poets and thinkers who survived the Holocaust were generally based on this paradox--they expressed a traumatized belief which, standing the trial of the Holocaust, was too profound to be pacified by any of the ready‑made theological "solutions." One may even put it this way the mere idea of a possible solution was anathema to their feeling of absolutely justified amazement. Precisely because they did believe in spite of what they had lived through, there could be no answer to their unjustifiable suffering, unless God Himself could be described as a victim of Radical Evil together with His chosen people.

Thus, they experienced their protest as an inner necessary dimension of belief after the Holocaust. This feeling, it seems, was the source of the varieties of "Protest Theologies" or "Revolt Theologies" which occupied the greatest part of Jewish theological literature published in the aftermath of the Holocaust (Susman, 1946; Wiesel, 1960; Greenberg, 1977; Rubenstein, 1966; Fackenheim, 1982; Maybaum, 1965; Cohen, 1981).

The Holocaust Was Not Unique

But besides these main responses there were some contradictory responses of ultra‑Orthodox and modern Orthodox theologians. These religious movements, of course, could not accept such attitudes of protest as an adequate basis for their religious education.

Striving to protect the foundations of their religious worldviews they could not admit the extraordinary uniqueness of the Holocaust in this sense; therefore, they were looking back to the traditional argumentation in spite of the felt difficulties (Wolpin, 1986; Teitlebaum, 1959; Schwartz and Goldstein, 1987). At first, the expressions were indeed reluctant, preferring a silent avoidance of direct discussion of theological topics, and proposing instead the immersion in a devoted study of the Torah and fulfillment of its commandments. But, during the last decade, the publication of traditional Orthodox responses has been multiplied and become more articulated and more assertive. They entered overtly the public theological arena and have challenged a full reflective response.

Reaffirming Traditional Models

Let us state even in the start of our discussion that we should not be too easily tempted to characterize ultra‑Orthodox and Orthodox responses to the Holocaust as a simple reconstruction of traditional theological argumentations, and in the following discussion we would try to demonstrate the essential differences. Still, at a first glance, and at least on the level of surface understanding, we have here a conscious reaffirmation of some old theological views.

Already in the Holocaust itself the responses were oscillating between an amazed silence of passive compliance to the nonunderstandable Divine verdict, or an active readiness to sanctify the Holy Name in public, again without asking any questions or offering any explanations, on the part of the majority of Orthodox Jews, and, on the part of an ultra‑Orthodox minority. There was a certain kind of fanatic ideological justification of the Holocaust as a due Divine punishment for the sins of atheism, assimilationism and defiance of the Torah and its commandments by post‑emancipationist modernist Jewish movements, especially secular Zionism, Jewish materialistic socialism and reform.

Even those who remained piously faithful must suffer now, this ideology explains, because the majority of the Jewish people sinned. But the righteous will, of course, be fully compensated in their life to come in heaven and in the glory of the messianic era which surely will soon arrive.

On the other hand, this fundamentalist religious ideology emphasized the argument that Nazism, that diabolic Radical Evil, is the unavoidable result of atheism and revolt against God and His Law. This means that atheism had been exposed in its utter degradation and wickedness, and thus had been unrecoverably refuted. There remained only one escape from disaster, and hope of redemption for humanity-‑repentance and return to God and His Law.

This is a quite obvious continuation of traditional theological stances, and they were based, indeed, directly on the ancient sources, trying even to demonstrate a claim that what had happened in the Holocaust had been already foreseen and minutely proclaimed by the biblical prophets, especially by Moses. Yet, what is most important in this Orthodox response is the stubborn refusal to admit that the Holocaust was unique among the many destructions and hardships which are replete in Jewish history. It may have been bigger in quantity of murders and much more cruel, but it is not qualitatively, or essentially, different.

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Eliezer Schweid

Dr. Eliezer Schweid is a recipient of the Israel Prize and Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University.